Abbas Kiarostami is exhausted, and understandably so. Not only is he is town for a near-complete Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) retrospective, he is also teaching an intensive nine day course at Manhattan’s Hunter College. This class, so MoMA publicist Paul Power tells me, is where Kiarostami is coming from, and the reason why he is running behind schedule. Time is no issue, so I don’t begrudge the wait. I do, however, feel a slight twinge of jealousy: for a brief moment I wish to be among those twenty-five film students (“lucky them,” I think) who Kiarostami is mentoring. The feeling is gone just as quickly when I recall my own disillusionment with filmmaking, courtesy a not unpleasant (though neither enthralling) four years as a Tisch School of the Arts undergraduate. Put simply, I prefer movies when they’re finished—that’s where my work begins. Leave the prelude to those who have the constitution to endure numerous sleepless nights, as Kiarostami reportedly did during the filming of his masterpiece Close-Up.
Not that his exhaustion is ever outwardly visible. When Kiarostami arrives for our interview he is alert and courteous. I can just barely see the outline of his eyes behind the dark-lensed sunglasses that are an omnipresent staple of his public persona. It’s initially disturbing that he doesn’t remove them, though in my distress, I’m reminded of the Jorge Luis Borges story “Hakim, the Masked Dyer of Merv” wherein a veiled prophet is speared to death after curiosity gets the better of his disciples. Perhaps it is better not to know. Kiarostami’s translator, Maryam Horri, asks if the interview can be brief as it has been a long day. I’ve been promised a half-hour; she requests no more than fifteen minutes. I assent before showing my trump card, pulling from my bag Kiarostami’s book of poetry, Walking with the Wind. He brightens up noticeably, my gesture perfectly balanced, so it seems, between genuine regard and kiss-ass deference. During the interview, Kiarostami even refers to the book, gently pulling it from underneath my voice recorder to locate a poem. Though my questions are necessarily broad (if any art cries out for an extended, in-depth parsing, it is Kiarostami’s), we end up speaking for almost twenty-five minutes—a happy medium between what was promised and what was requested. With all the inherent problems and misunderstandings that can result from conversing through an interpreter, I can only pray that I’ve done our dialogue justice.
The MoMA exhibition is titled “Abbas Kiarostami: Image Maker,” which to me implies various modes of creation. Do you see the image as the basis, the most important aspect of your work?
The title is not mine, but I like it because it doesn’t limit itself to cinema. It can include photography or even the book that you are holding—poems build images with words.
In viewing the P.S.1 exhibit, it struck me that the images weren’t far removed from your motion pictures, that even your still photographs imply movement. For example, in the Rain series there’s very much a sense of the wiper blades about to come (or having come) over the raindrops. And in the Snow White series there’s a sense that there has already been movement through the photographed space, as if something—maybe natural, maybe not—has impressed itself on the landscape. And there is more to come as well: it’s a never-ending cycle.
There is a connection between my photography and my cinema. If there was no movement in what I photographed then I would have felt no need to take those pictures. Yet even though you can hear the sound and see the path of the wiper, my photography is capturing one specific moment. The same applies in my cinema: even though it’s a moving image, I’m still capturing a specific moment. The same applies in my poems, for example:
A white foal
emerges through the fog
in the fog.
You’re reading that a white foal, a baby horse, has come and gone; through the poem you have an impression of the movement. Even though you don’t see it, you have an impression of the movement in your psyche. This foal is like the wipers on the windshield. You don’t see the actual movement of it, but you see its impression. A moment is suggested through this implied movement.
In other words, it can be there without literally being there.
And does this extend to your work with digital video? When I viewed the Five exhibition, I really enjoyed being able to move close to the image and to see it—I’ll put it in quotes— “degrade.” The subjects became blurry, pixelated, but there was still something beautiful about this “degraded” image. It held a certain kind of truth.
To me there’s a similarity between these pixels and the cells in your body. In other words, if you looked at your body through a microscope, you would see it in the same way as you would those images.
That suggests a kind of a scientific observation. When I think of science I tend to equate it with detachment, though I wouldn’t ascribe that descriptor to your work. But do you see yourself as a scientist, looking through a microscope?
I don’t see myself fully as a scientist. That mindset is just one part of my work. For example: When you sense the flow of air, you know that you are in its path—it’s coming from one place and going to another, and you feel it when it hits you. But that flow of air would not be what it is without its journey, and if I mistook it as being only that (where it’s hitting me) then I would lose the reality of that journey.
Do you see digital video as one color on your palette, or is it all there is for you? Might you still make use of film?
Digital is a new possibility. I’m like a curious child that has many toys, and at the moment I’m trying to figure this one toy out and see what I can extract from it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not cognizant of other colors on the palette. It’s just one tool I’m using at the moment.
What is the importance of an audience to your work?
When I’m working I don’t really think about my audience. I can’t think about my audience because I have to figure out the creative problems of the work. I know I’m not able to select my audience. When there’s nothing, there’s no audience. Once the work is finished is when the audience comes. Sometimes I have preconceived a certain audience for a certain film, but that audience is gone by the time the film is finished. Other times I have found an audience I never even thought of when I started. Therefore, I’ve come to the realization that I should not think of it when I am working. At the same time I can only ever wish to have a bigger audience—I don’t want to be misinterpreted as saying the audience is not important to me.
Could you say a few words about The Report (Gozaresh) (1977), which isn’t screening in the retrospective?
It was my first feature film. There’s only one copy because the negative was burnt. That copy is out of the country. The color has become red. It was my first social issues picture.
And Shohreh Aghdashloo, from House of Sand and Fog, is in it, correct?
Yes. It was Shohreh’s first film. At that time she was a child. She was very young then. (pause) She’s quite young still.
If, as Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying, “cinema begins with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami” then where does that leave us? Is this definitely the end of things? Or does this “end” signify a rebirth?
I don’t think that Godard said that. If he did say it in one place then he took it back someplace else. Of me he has said, “I only like one of Kiarostami’s films.” And in one of his recent comments he said, “Kiarostami is taking cinema down the wrong road.” At one point I was great in Godard’s eye. Now I’m descended. We shouldn’t take such comments very seriously. The films that last are determined by time. It’s not how much you sell it for or how many prizes you get or what the market says is good at the moment. It’s time. If a film is good after thirty years, it’s a good film. Within the first few months of its existence you know if a film has quality. After thirty years you can tell whether it has staying power. I saw some films recently by a filmmaker I respected when I was young, and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t like them at all.
Who? What films?
I can’t say. It’s such a big name that I’m afraid to say it. It’s dangerous to say it.
Then we’ll just leave it a mystery.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications. The media installation of Five runs until May 28th, 2007 in the Yoshiko and Akio Morita Gallery at MoMA. Click here for details. The Kiarostami film retrospective runs until March 19th, 2007 at MoMA. Click here for schedule information. The P.S.1 photography exhibition runs until April 29th, 2007. Click here for more information.